Patch: What is they mayor’s role when it comes to the police department?
Mayor Comitta: Really the number one responsibility of the mayor in the Borough of West Chester is to provide civilian oversight to the administration of the police department. So the mayor can work with the administration to establish policy. And, for example, Mayor Yoder conducted a strategic plan that we’re still using.
Patch: What exactly do you mean by ‘civilian oversight’?
Mayor Comitta: The mayor does not have operational control or any of that. I am not a professional law enforcement person in any sense. But my job is to make sure our police department is addressing the needs of our people, which they happen to do very well.
Patch: What will be your role in the upcoming labor negotiations?
Mayor Comitta: My understanding is that there really isn’t a role for the mayor in the negotiations. I can tell you that without getting involved in the negotiations as mayor, my goal is to make sure the contract that is a result of the negotiation process enables our police officers to take care of what they need to do to serve and protect the people in a way we can afford, that reflects state of the art law enforcement and all of that. It’s very important that our police officers are supported financially and with training, benefits, health care, because if they’re strong as a force and as individuals then they will have more to give back to the community.
Patch: What are your feelings about the negotiations?
Mayor Comitta: The community needs to be able to afford what is decided. So there’s a balance there that’s very important. You can’t just say, ‘cut the police. Cut the police. Cut the police.’ You need to look at the consequences and how that relates to how they can protect and serve our diverse community. It really comes back to doing what’s in the best interest of the people. It’s very important that the negotiation outcome is fair and financially sustainable.
Patch: There seems to be a demand from residents for more policing, but the borough lacks the funds to meet that demand?
Mayor Comitta: Exactly, the Catch-22. The WCPD is widely regarded as the finest police dept in the county and beyond. I also believe it's important to acknowledge that the officers regularly put their lives on the line in order to do what is needed to protect our citizens. People can feel safe and enjoy West Chester in large part due to the strategic and Diligent service of our police force. In addition, safety and economic development go hand in hand. But I can tell you that if a police officer doesn’t answer your call for noise it’s because they are responding to a domestic dispute, a fight or they’re responding to someone who maybe passed out from drinking too much. So it’s not that they don’t care, it’s because they have to address a more serious issue at that moment.
Patch: Are problems in the downtown and student neighborhoods as bad as perceived?
Mayor Comitta: At times, yes. The problem is alcohol and density of young people. When you combine youthful exuberance with alcohol you get noise. You get public urination. You get vandalism. There is a problem. It’s not 100 percent alcohol related, but it’s pretty close. And in terms of students, about 50 percent of the police violations are student related. The other 50 percent are visitor related or maybe other residents. If you look at the big picture of the “part 1” crimes like rape, murder, assault. They’re very low in the borough, very low, which is why people come here to live they feel safe.
Patch: So most of the crime in West Chester has to do with quality of life?
Mayor Comitta: Quality of life crimes are high in the student neighborhood with noise being number one. The answer is that there are problems. The police, with the number of officers, they respond to the most pressing, most dangerous issues. I can tell you as annoying as noise is; nobody is getting hurt. That’s a problem if you live there. You’re awake because you live there, and you’re irritated. And then you get sick because you’re not getting enough sleep. I understand that. This is a real problem, and it is something we can improve. However, it’s not something will ever go away completely. But if we can improve and reduce then we can fix some of these problems.
Patch: How involved is the University?
Mayor Comitta: The university is heavily invested in this, as is the police department, as is the borough council, as are the residents in working together to reduce these quality of life crimes. The university spends close to $500,000 per year for alcohol education, for the Sykes After Dark program, which is an alcohol free alternative. The students are building the new rec center that will be open until two or three in the morning. They’ve put a lot of money into this because they want to keep their students safe, and they want to be good neighbors.
Patch: What are some specific actions that have been taken?
Mayor Comitta: The Community Campus Coalition have been working now for three years on initiatives like finding alcohol free alternatives, looking to reduce the density of student housing in the university neighborhoods. In fact, we’re getting together a group of rental property owners, university officials and borough elected officials and residents to look at some really creative things we might do to incentivize non-student rentals in those neighborhoods. There are some best practices out there that we’re looking at, and there are some new things that we’re looking at. But there’s not one silver bullet. There really has to be a collaborative effort, and we have all the lines of communication open.